Four Questions with Robert Stern, Composer of Shofar
As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, the shofar blasts are heard daily during the month of Elul. For some, it is an awakening. For others, it serves as a reminder of our relationship with God. For Robert Stern, Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Massachusetts, the shofar's calls inspired a piece of music. That work is featured on the newly released Awakenings, the first commercial CD by Coro Allegro, Boston's only mixed chorus for members and friends of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities.
You've been quoted as saying that in your oratorio, Shofar, the shofar isn't so much about the instrument, but about what its calls represent. Could you explain what that means?
Yes. In this piece the shofar blasts are a metaphor for our human experience—our hope of being whole and our fear of being shattered.
I’ve always been intrigued by the sound of the shofar. When I was growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, at the High Holidays, the sheer sound of the shofar blasts always seemed thrilling to me. Recently, when I wanted to create a large choral work, I thought I might want to focus on the shofar, but wasn’t sure how to proceed. Rabbi Shelia Weinberg (who had been my rabbi at the Jewish Community of Amherst) showed me Rabbi Arthur Green’s work, Seek My Face Speak My Name. This book excited me and opened the doors to the piece by speaking of the shofar calls as being about the mystery—our relationship to God, and the way that we humans possess free will and so are allowed to mess things up.
Rabbi Green’s book discusses the four calls of the shofar as representing prayer beyond words. He writes: “The shofar cries out on Rosh Hashannah, 'I was whole and was broken, even smashed to bits, but I shall be whole again.'” Tekiah starts as whole, Shevarim and Truah is staccato and entirely smashed. And with the last Tekiah Gedolah, it’s a promise of the new whole. I was moved by the idea of becoming whole again, a kind of cleaning out of the soul. I needed a libretto. I knew a musical and talented writer, Catherine Madsen, who offered to help. Catherine suggested using the experience at Sinai as the narrative for the oratorio. The libretto is fashioned into four parts, and each part is represented by a shofar call. Tekiah is the Revelation at Sinai and the establishment of the Covenant between God and Israel. Shevarim is when things begin to break apart, leading to the faithlessness of Israel: the Golden Calf. Truah represents God’s rage, and the shattering of the Covenantal relationship between God and Israel. The fourth call, Tekiah Gedolah, is when the Covenantal relationship between God is renegotiated with the second set of tablets, and the relationship becomes whole again. So the piece is not about the Shofar, but about what the calls represent: our human vulnerability and weakness, and within that our continuing prayer for a world that reflects the best that we can be.
The piece is organized into four parts that represent the progression from wholeness to brokenness to shattering, back to wholeness. Give me some examples of how you represent that dynamic in the music.
It’s represented through the development of the piece. The piece begins rather quietly, with the creation of God’s name, but as it progresses, the music becomes more dissonant, more dramatic. It grows as the story of the relationship between God and the Israelites develops; the music takes it up a step. It’s heard in the orchestra and chorus, and in the wonderful libretto that Catherine wrote. The libretto stands on its own as a masterpiece, in my opinion. The piece calls on me to create drama, both in the shattering of the relationship between God and Israel, and in the also dramatic coming together to a second, different wholeness. At that juncture the libretto reads: “Each craved a kinder lover / we only have each other / we make the world together / there is no other labor.” I wrote the music for this in a very reflective, melodic way. So those parts become quieter, more personal. Wholeness is represented by a love duet. Both the libretto and my music move from drama to drama.
I noticed that Coro Allegro first premiered Shofar, and now they are issuing this recording. What is your connection to the group?
I knew David Hodgkins, the artistic director, and thought very highly of his work. Coro has done my work before… splendidly! It’s just a marvelous group. I approached David with the piece, and he thought it would be a challenge. Working with Coro Allegro on this piece has been very gratifying.
The oratorio also calls for orchestra and soloists. The Tenor assumes the role of narrator. The Bass Baritones are God and Moses. The Soprano emerges above the choral moments. It’s a mixture of all those voices and orchestra. The piece was first done by the chorus in 2006, and then I inserted another passage to clarify the music and story. Then in 2009, Coro performed it again. That’s the recording that’s now out by Navona Records.
I'm originally from Western Mass, so I'm always excited to get to speak with someone from the area. Do you have a favorite place to hear music/attend a show in the area?
Four Questions is a weekly interview column featuring interesting people connected with the greater Boston Jewish community. Find past columns here. Have an idea of someone we should interview? Email Molly!